Form Follows Function.

Or does it?

This phrase appealed to the common-sensible manager in me from the very first time I heard it. It seemed so pragmatic; so logical and reasonable; matter-of-fact even.

In business early on, I was taught that good managers manage good processes. While earning some of my supervisory stripes in the heyday of the Total Quality Management movement I learned how to hunt and destroy process variation like a heat-seeking missile. So the concept that form —in other words, our form called the operational process— would naturally, practically, and sequentially follow the function it was intended to support, automate, or make easy in some way, was divine. I wanted to believe in it.

How very naïve I was.

The phrase may largely hold true with invention: Function defines need, and the form of the invention follows. My son recalls the phrase as a relentless lesson of his biology teacher; there is a reason different life forms have evolved as they have. Yet our behavior at work is not necessarily as logical, nor as natural.

I’ve learned that the origin of the phrase “form follows function” has its roots in architectural design. This is from Wikipedia:

The origin of the phrase is traced back to the American sculptor Horatio Greenough, but it was American architectural giant Louis Henri Sullivan who adopted it and made it famous. Sullivan actually said ‘form ever follows function’, but the simpler (and less emphatic) phrase is the one usually remembered. For Sullivan this was distilled wisdom, an aesthetic credo, the single “rule that shall permit of no exception”.

Well, most naiveté long gone, this older manager has gotten wiser. (Or let’s just say more battle worn, for I’m still working on the wisdom part.) In stepping back far enough to have some operational objectivity, looking at a whole slew of different operational processes with a bigger curiosity, I’ve come to know that ‘form follows function’ is not necessarily a “rule that shall permit of no exception.”

Operational process is just one type of form. In our workplaces, it can be an interesting brainstorm to separate when in fact, function has followed form. In doing the exercise with my own work team at Say Leadership Coaching, we can often discover some ways in which our adopted form has followed precedent, and diagnosis made, we have learned to get better at asking ourselves “Why?”

  • Why do we do it (whatever the function is) this way?
  • Why have we accepted this (the traditional, or precedent-comfortable form)?
  • Why haven’t we been bolder, or taken a different route? Can, and should we innovate?
  • Why do we perceive certain obstacles? Exactly what are the risks?
  • Why not tweak it somehow, experiment, or run a new pilot? What more can we learn?

Guess what normally happens in this questioning? We discover that neither form nor function is as static as we may have once thought. Function can grow so much larger; it begins to look like new possibility. Improvement follows, and soon, on its heels can come innovation.

So now, the phrase of choice in my company, and in my coaching, has become form and function. The coaching is to look at processes from both directions;

a) to uncover the true cause and effect of what we do, and
b) to be sure we are not too quick to settle on the first answer.

Finding more answers, and finding new answers, is where we innovate.

Form and function leads to many more ways to think, and to question, and it can serve us wonderfully. Add the phrase to the process design within your workplace, and discover where you are meant to innovate. Create your new best.

Related Articles:

Rosa Say is the author of Managing with Aloha, Bringing Hawaii’s Universal Values to the Art of Business and the Talking Story blog. She is the founder and head coach of Say Leadership Coaching, a company dedicated to bringing nobility to the working arts of management and leadership. For more of her ideas, click to her Thursday columns in the archives; you’ll find her index in the left column of www.ManagingWithAloha.com

Rosa’s Previous Thursday Column was: Huddle up; Meet well

Love this article? Share it with your friends on Facebook